Transatlantic Translation

Some differences between British and American English are fairly obvious, like the different uses of “brilliant,” “pissed,” and “knock up” (though the American meaning of the last, at least, has now made its way fairly well into British usage). I want to talk about a couple that are a little more nuanced.

One is the difference between the British and American usage of “meant to.” Consider the following two sentences.

This décor is meant to look Egyptian.

The weather is meant to be lovely in Capri this time of year.

The first sentence sounds fine in American English, though an American would be slightly more likely to say “supposed to.” But the second is something an American just wouldn’t say; here only “supposed to” would do (unless one is referring to the gods’ purposes in arranging Capri’s weather). But it sounds quite normal in British English. The difference is that in American English, “meant to” suggests something’s being intended, while “supposed to” can mean either that or what is simply taken to be the case – which is how “meant to” works in British English.

(Actually I think the difference shows up in the first sentence too; my sense is that in American English “This décor is meant to look Egyptian” stresses the intentionality, as if to explain that the Egyptian appearance isn’t an accident.)

The other difference concerns the word “right.” There’s a fair bit of overlap between the British and American uses here, but there are also differences, and the particular one I have in mind is nicely displayed in the following video clip of the opening scene from the original BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (The scene is also charming in its own right – and incidentally does a nice job of instantly making it visually clear, to readers of the book, which actors are playing which characters.)

Now in American English, if you begin with “Right!” then you have to be responding to something someone else has said; you can’t just start off with it, the way you can in British English. What does work in American English the way “right” works in British English is “okay”; it would sound perfectly natural for an American to begin a meeting with “Okay, let’s get started” – but not with “Right, let’s get started.”

By contrast, “Okay, we shall start” – as opposed to “Okay, let’s get started” – would sound a bit off in American English, but my (fallible) sense is that Alleline’s “we shall start” is not quite natural in British English either; the Alleline character is supposed – and indeed meant – to be something of a pompous ass, and this might be reflected in unnatural speech patterns.

2 Responses to Transatlantic Translation

  1. Matt Flipago February 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    So the word “right” in British English works in a similar way to “alright”?


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